Frontstretch Staff · Thursday October 31, 2013
Welcome to the IndyCar Round Table! Several times throughout the season, your favorite writers will get together to discuss the latest IndyCar news, rumors and so much more!
This Week’s Participants:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Editor)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / NASCAR’s Four Burning Questions)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / Happiness Is)
Let’s start with the championship. What are your thoughts on how the final race played out? What do you think of ending the season with a 500-mile event, one in which a lot of cars did not finish?
Matt: The race was even more dramatic than I anticipated. And as for the race being 500 miles… I wouldn’t want it
any other way.
Huston: First, I’m not surprised that Dixon was able to take the championship. A 30-point lead is pretty tough to overcome in just one race without a failure.
Toni: A 30-point lead is especially tough to overcome when it’s held by Scott Dixon. He’s a machine. And I agree with Matt; I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyone who complained about the attrition at Fontana does not understand what a 500-miler implies in IndyCar. Of course, a lot of cars won’t make it – be it accidents or mechanical. That’s one of the differences between open-wheel and NASCAR.
Matt: Dixon rode a wave of momentum that was impossible to topple.
Huston: Dixon and Castroneves did find a way to make things interesting there in the early stint. But Dixon’s first pit stop is what, in my mind, won him the race. He jumped back up with the leaders and held there.
Matt: Also, let me just say, Fontana is perhaps the best IndyCar-specific track on the circuit. It’s bumpy, perfectly banked, fast, drafty… perfect for this sport.
Huston: I’ll agree with you on those aspects, Matt, though there are two negatives with that track and Indy. It seemed to eat the tires and leave bits all about; plus, you had the dirt/sand combo. Those two things caused havoc for a number of teams. But I love the endurance, high-speed aspect of finishing the season there.
Toni: You know, Huston has a good point. Even with a 30-point lead for Dixon and knowing Castroneves had a tall order to take it, it wasn’t a runaway. At least not for a good portion of the race. What do you guys think of Dixon as the champion?
Matt: Dixon is a great champion for the sport. Well-spoken, charismatic, and uber cool, he represents the sport very well.
Toni: I am mixed on it. He’s one of the best and so from that point of view, he’s a great champion and maybe he
will get the respect he deserves as one of the best. On the other hand, people just don’t get all warm and fuzzy about him. And this last bit would have applied to either of them. It was Ganassi or Penske — again.
Huston: Here’s the sucky thing, and I agree with you Matt, and your comments also hit it Toni… but people love Castroneves. His Dancing With The Stars resume makes him a crossover. He’s a known name. And he’s got that energy/charisma that draws people to him.
Toni: Dixon has become more personable, or maybe we’ve just finally gotten to know him better. But being a spokesperson, which is part of being champion, just isn’t his strong suit.
Matt: He’s something of a “safe” champion… but a good champion nonetheless. All that being said, you have to think IndyCar execs were rooting for a Castroneves championship because of the crossover appeal.
Huston: That’s not to disparage Dixon, but rather to note the cultural capital that Castroneves has.
Matt: I agree with that, Huston.
Toni: Castroneves has charm in spades, he’s a great spokesperson because he’s outgoing and really does well in a front and center role. I think for awhile, people thought it was an act but at this point, everyone knows it’s not – he’s just really like that and people enjoy it. So
yeah, I’m pretty sure IndyCar was hoping for Castroneves because it would have made the publicity part of the champions tour a whole lot easier…
Huston: There’s nothing to find fault with here, just that Castroneves would have brought a lot more eyeballs to things.
Toni: Yeah, but I do also feel that if you want a driver’s driver – Dixon is your man. He’s just not as easy of a publicity sell.
The 2014 schedule has been released. What do you think of the lineup and of the shorter season? Related to the schedule, what do you think of the addition of the road course race to the month of May at Indy?
Huston: With everything, there’s positives and negatives… but here, IndyCar really landed on the positive side of things. Quick five-month schedule. No crazy layoffs. The Month of May at Indy is excellent — two types of racing, and a good bookend.
Matt: I like the addition of the Indy Road Course and I like the compressed schedule. I just wish they could have scored another oval for the schedule.
Toni: I definitely like the shorter season and not having three dozen off weekends and whole months of no action on track. I also like how they did the final weeks, hitting a range of different kinds of tracks. And I like the road course race at Indy. I have heard some grumbles, but I can’t figure out what could possibly be bad about that? They are tweaking the track to make it as good of a course as they can; it’s there, so why not use it? And frankly, I think May at Indy could use the punch since we don’t get it from the qualifying sessions like we used to.
Matt: The seven months of hiatus are a tad bit troubling, though for a sport that needs publicity. The NFL can get away
with it because it’s the NFL. IndyCar? That remains to be seen.
Toni: Yeah but Matt, the options here are a drawn out season with a ton of off weeks like we had this year or a longer offseason. Although maybe they could have run a tad longer and gone to mid-September.
Huston: The one area for which most people are disappointed is not having a few more races/tracks. Still amazed they can’t figure out a way to include Phoenix.
Matt: Phoenix and Chicagoland were both very close to making it. Chicago didn’t make it because Milwaukee lobbied against it, and Phoenix simply fell through. All things considered, I think they made the best schedule that they could have possibly made given their financial situation.
Huston: Yeah, they need not to have things fall through. Not sure how they can’t get something like that together. And that’s really what’s missing, something like Phoenix or possibly Richmond.
Matt: Facilities just don’t trust IndyCar. It’s that simple, unfortunately. Phoenix would be an excellent IndyCar facility.
Toni: You have to put butts in seats so the tracks don’t lose money; they aren’t showing much faith that will happen. Which is why Milwaukee lobbied against Chicago. Hard enough to get the fans out without giving them another option.
Huston: So the underlying aspect of that question is: what is considered a success in attendance?
Toni: Expecting to have a NASCAR Sprint Cup-sized crowd is not realistic. If we’re honest, if you get 30,000 people to come out to an IndyCar race, you’ve probably hit a home run. But if you only get 10K, is it even worth turning on the electricity?
Matt: They really just need to see some year-to-year growth.
Huston: True. And 30K seems like the target.
Matt: They did the best that they could, which is all the fans can ask for at this point.
Huston: I was surprised, however, that there weren’t more specials or deals to go to the race at Auto Club. You’d think that getting butts in the seats should be a primary focus, and there didn’t seem to be that kind of drive. Makes one wonder what they do around other tracks and events.
In spite of the great on-track product in IndyCar this year, television ratings continue to drop. The NBC Sports Network races were down 3% from last year and 30% from 2011 (282,000 in 2013 vs. 402,000 in 2011), the smallest average since the network started broadcasting the series. Adding in the races on ABC, the full season averaged 953,000 viewers, down 21% from 1.2 million last year. What can INDYCAR do to reverse this disturbing trend?
Toni: This is disturbing to me. Very disturbing. The bleed-off between last year and this one on NBCSN was not terrible, although it would be better if there were none. But the percentage of the total season was depressing. And the difference between 2011 and ’13 is shocking. The funny part is, 2011 was the old car everyone hated, while ’12 and ’13 with the new car featured much better racing, which has been publicized.
Matt: I wish I had an answer for that. There’s so many confounding factors to look at. No bona fide stars to build around. Piss poor marketing. A racing product that is geared towards a hardcore crowd instead of a casual-type fan. It’s due to so many different things.
Huston: Not to mention the weird schedule and ho-hum timing of events. So yeah, there’s a whole potful of reasons that the numbers have dropped.
Matt: The racing right now is great, but you have to ask yourself… is this style of racing appealing to the casual fan? I’m not sure it is. It’s great for the hardcore Indy fan who really knows racing, but part of me thinks the “pack racing” style stuff would’ve played better with casual fans and ratings and whatnot. There’s also a large perception that “non-NASCAR racing” is a dying sport. That doesn’t help.
Toni: I think the weird schedule this year had something to do with it, but it’s that drop between 2011 and now that has me troubled. It was a 27% drop between 2011 and 2012. Over 100,000 viewers on average.
Huston: The drop is kind of surprising, especially as F1 should have brought some more attention. The funny thing is that I talked with different people at Fontana who said that the crowd this year was much better than last. But then, the championship race was on a Saturday night and many people were probably focused on college football or something.
Toni: So is the at-track going up but the at-home viewers are dropping?
Huston: Toni, I’m almost under that impression.
Matt: The lack of consistency in some of the races doesn’t help, to say the least.
Toni: I have a theory on it that I almost don’t want to say. I think after 2011, some people fell out of love with IndyCar racing because of what can sometimes happen.
Huston: So Toni, you think there’s a Dan Wheldon effect?
Matt: I think there’s a large Danica Patrick Effect that some in the IndyCar community refuse to admit exists, too. The Dan Wheldon Effect certainly seems plausible to me as well.
Toni: I do think so, Huston. It could also be a Danica Patrick effect if we’re honest. It could be a combination of the two.
Matt: There’s definitely a big combination of the two in play.
Huston: That’s a difficult twosome.
Toni: If that is it, how on earth do you fix that?
Matt: Also, let’s be honest, NASCAR has increasingly taken over more and more of the “racing pie,” so to speak in the past few years.
Toni: I guess you can fix half of it by finding an attractive female racer to come into the series, at least stay out of the way and be periodically competitive. You can put her on magazine covers in a bikini…
Huston: To fix it… slow and steady. Keep doing what they’re doing. Smart hires, smart schedule.
Matt: You can’t fix the Danica/Dan Effects. Those things are unfortunately irreversible. IndyCar’s only hope is to maintain the current product and hope that they can build a stable, niche audience composed of hardcore fans. Then, once the sport is on more stable footing, they can finally start to rebuild and look for more practical ways to grow in a gradual manner. You just can’t fix this sport’s popularity issues overnight.
Huston: That’s the way I see it, Matt. They got smart with the schedule for next year. They got smart with the Walker hire. The new guy in charge, Mark Miles, seems to be a good fit. Just keep putting out a decent product and don’t do anything silly.
Matt: Exactly. The days of trying to reclaim former mainstream glory are over. IndyCar needs to accept that it’s a niche sport for the time being, then revel in that role for at least a decade or so in order to regain trust among fans and the general public. Then, maybe they can start looking to grow again.
Some of next year’s team combos have already been sorted out and announced. Are there any you find particularly exciting or interesting?
Huston: Anyone who follows IndyCar has to be way up on JPM and Penske, and TK and Chip. Awesome.
Toni: Well, for starters there are the two superteams we have coming on. They were already the cream of the crop, but adding JPM to Penske and TK to Ganassi just takes those two over the top, I think.
Matt: Tony Kanaan with Ganassi is interesting. Sage Karam is also an interesting prospect poised to move up to the big leagues in 2014. Montoya with Penske is intriguing. Outside of those three, it’s mostly just backmarkers shuffling around to lateral teams.
Huston: Yeah, the other moves aren’t all that special. Hinchcliffe was close there for a moment, but good to see he’ll still be in a quality ride.
Matt: Hinch saved his career by staying with Andretti Autosport.
Toni: He wouldn’t have had a choice if they hadn’t found a sponsor, but I am pretty sure he knew that’s where he really wanted to stay. If you aren’t driving for Penske or Ganassi and you want to have a snowball’s chance, you need to be with AA. I say that, and yet that wasn’t true this year.
Huston: Andretti seemed kind of hit and miss all year. Unreliable might be a better word choice.
Toni: Honestly, if you go by the final rundown of it, Andretti got outrun by Schmidt. And even more shocking, mostly outrun by Dale Coyne of all people…
Matt: I think Pagenaud simply outdrove his equipment. He could have won the championship if he ran with a Big 3
Toni: I know Justin Wilson outdrove his equipment, too.
Matt: Andretti with Honda ought to be interesting next year, now that I think about it.
Huston: Yeah, we’ve got what you could call infrastructure switches with Andretti and Chip changing engines. Good call.
Toni: It might benefit Andretti next year that they will be the flagship Honda team.
Huston: For better or worse, the big interest is on Penske and Ganassi. The competition amongst them should be excellent entertainment.
Matt: Montoya is, in my opinion the most intriguing driver to watch next year.
Toni: I am looking forward to seeing what Montoya does.
Matt: I’m very excited to see what he can do.
Huston: Yeah, if Montoya enters the season on fire, he could be wild to watch.
Connect with Toni!
Contact Toni Montgomery
Connect with Huston!
Contact Huston Ladner
Connect with Matt!
Contact Matt Stallknecht
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